In late June, New York Times’s South-East Asia bureau chief Hannah Beech wrote an article in which she described a pile of mangosteens as “an exercise in disappointment”, said durian stank of “death” and concluded many of the region’s native fruits hovered “between delectable and decayed”.
The article, titled Eating Thai Fruit Demands Serious Effort but Delivers Sublime Reward, elicited heated responses online.
Award-winning American food writer Osayi Endolyn, whose bylines include the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, did a “close reading” that systematically broke down Beech’s feature.
In her annotations for one section, she writes: “This is an extremely negative and opinionated view framed as reported fact. It emphasises the trouble and the problem. It is an outsider take. By that, I mean a COLONIAL take.”
Vietnamese American novelist and “avid eater” Monique Truong took to Twitter to express her dismay:
Like Truong, Sydney food writer and podcaster Lee Tran Lam (host of The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry) was aggrieved by Beech describing a rambutan as bearing “more than a passing resemblance to a coronavirus”.
“[This] flippant remark doesn’t really take in the context that it’s being published in,” says Lam, pointing to the connection between the spread of COVID-19 and a rise in anti-Asian racism.
“There’s obviously a certain level of cultural blindness that happened [with that article],” she says.
And Beech’s feature is the tip of the iceberg, alongside other recent developments in food media — including the events that led to the Times suspending their food critic Alison Roman, and revelations about how Bon Appetit remunerates and treats its staff of colour.
Below these high-profile controversies lie pervasive issues in the food industry and its media that Lam and other Australian journalists are hoping to address.
But first, on durians
Lam says she was “quite confused” when she read the New York Times article.
Lam compares the “trouble” of preparing some Asian fruit to the challenges of preparing an artichoke, which also requires quite a lot of work for a small amount of flesh.
She says that while Western media portrays artichoke preparation as “romantic”, it has a long-term fascination with durian — viewing it as “strange and weird and smelly”.
Lam contrasts this approach with that of Clarissa Wei, who wrote about durian in the Nikkei South Asian Review.
Wei writes: “For many of the 670 million residents of [South-East] Asia and beyond, the durian is far from noxious … its varieties are adored for their aromatic pulp, with flavours that can range from creamy custard to bitter, boozy liquor.”
Wei details parties, tours, menus and festivals — all designed around the durian.
Lam says: “In Thailand a year ago, someone paid $50,000 for one durian at the King of Durian festival. It’s called the king of fruit in Asia for a reason.”
Had she been assigned to write about “Thai fruits”, Lam says, “I would have covered a bit more cultural history” — as she did when writing about durian in a 2019 story for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Expensive, inaccessible and European
Rushani Epa, a journalist, editor and content coordinator for the Vue Group (which includes celebrity chef Shannon Bennett’s Vue de Monde in Melbourne) says that she was “very upset” and “frustrated” on reading the New York Times piece.
“We’ve been seeing quite a big pivot when it comes to food reporting, a lot more cultural awareness and respect … [so] I was just really surprised that it was even published, especially by the New York Times.”
Lam says in the last few years, there’s been a debate raging within food media.
“[It’s] about food culture and the kind of food that we value, the kind of restaurants that win awards, and how for a long time, supposed ‘ethnic restaurants’ … were only valued because they were cheap and cheerful,” Lam says.
She says “ethnic restaurants” are still cordoned-off in the “cheap eats” section of newspapers.
Epa adds that mainstream Australian food publications often pit dishes like pho or bánh mì against each other, in a way that they wouldn’t for, say, French cuisine.
Lam points to an article in The Guardian about jackfruit, which “starts by badmouthing its use in Indian food”, as a “close-minded” approach to non-European cuisine.
“It’s telling that she [the writer] uses a bad Starbucks wrap to then dismiss an ingredient that is key to so many Asian cultures,” says Lam.
“The assumption is that people [who] haven’t grown up eating these foods would be [the people] reading these stories — presumably, a white audience.”
Lam says the world’s best 50 restaurants list is a clear indicator of the priorities of mainstream food culture.
Only one restaurant in mainland China makes the cut: Shanghai’s Ultraviolet, a 10-seat dining room run by French chef Paul Pairet, that serves a 20-course “Avant-Garde” set menu that starts at $800.
“I think that shows you how so often what is valued as good food in the media is expensive food, inaccessible food, and European in style,” Lam says.
“It really prioritises tasting menu food as complex and technically marvellous. Whereas … trying to put 18 pleats on a dumpling is actually a real technical marvel. But that doesn’t get the awards.”
A 2017 analysis by scientist Lorraine Chuen found that of the 263 recipes listed as “Chinese” in the New York Times food section, only 10 per cent were authored by Chinese writers.
Food media in Australia suffers from the diversity problems that all Australian media suffers from.
“If you grew up with immigrant parents, and you got shamed in the playground for having smelly food, you are going to approach the way you write about that food in a different way from someone who might supposedly find it exotic or strange,” Lam says.
She isn’t suggesting that only people with the same cultural background as the subject should write about it — rather, she feels the best way to approach any topic is with respect, open-mindedness and context.
Lam recently launched the Diversity in Food Media Australia initiative, to boost the voices of those not currently represented by mainstream media and to help busy editors find them.
While she has longer-term plans around a publicly-available database, for now the project operates an Instagram account that will introduce you to people like writer Chloe Sargeant (who has plans to start a recipe website for people with chronic illness), photographer Sherry Zheng and food content producer Luisa Brimble.
In July, Rushani Epa launched Colournary magazine, which aims to “celebrate and amplify the voices of First Nations, Black and People of Colour through the lens of food and culture”.
“A big reason why I started Colournary was that I noticed the way that food from varying cuisines and cultures is reported is directed towards a predominantly Anglo audience,” says Epa.
“We [Colournary] don’t have that particular readership in mind; we’re not going to try and write about cuisines and cultures so an Anglo audience is going to understand.”
Epa had the idea for her magazine a few years ago but decided to launch now — partly because of recent conversations about racism and the media.
In its first month, Colournary has included stories about and recipes from Indigenous chef Sam May, Sikh Volunteers Australia and Filipino Australian chef Ross Magnaye.
Epa says through her work, she has gotten to know the migrant and diverse workers who staff Australian kitchens.
The editor says: “A big driver for me as well with this publication is getting those voices heard — not just your executive chefs, or your people in power, but those that are working hard behind the scenes.”